Representative Weldon, Pentagon Spar Over Proposed Nuclear Strategy

Christine Kucia

The Pentagon is seeking to block an effort by Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) to form a Commission on Nuclear Strategy, which would offer recommendations on nuclear policy and military requirements to the secretary of defense as well as to both congressional armed services committees. In August, Weldon, the second-ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, lashed out at the Pentagon’s decision to oppose his idea and suggested that the Pentagon’s action might affect his future support for Department of Defense (DOD) proposals in Congress.

In passing its version of the fiscal year 2004 National Defense Authorization Act, the House of Representatives included a provision for forming the commission. Under the House bill, which was approved May 22, the secretary of defense must appoint 12 members—spanning a range of political, military, and technical expertise in nuclear strategy—in consultation with congressional armed services committee leaders. The group would review nuclear policy, assess a range of nuclear strategies that the United States could pursue in the coming decades, focus on strengthening relations with Russia, and discuss deterrence and military requirements for the nuclear arsenal. The commission analysis would also address the issues of missile defense, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear weapons development in other countries.

The Senate counterpart, however, contains no such provision, and members from both houses are meeting in a conference committee to reconcile the differences in legislation. The Pentagon informed conference committee members of its opposition on July 23 and pushed for the provision to be dropped from the bill. The stance was part of the “appeals package,” in which DOD outlines its positions on various aspects of the authorization bill.

Pentagon officials pointed to the expansive assessment of nuclear strategy and policy that comprised the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which was released in January 2002, and noted that the study took into account all of the requirements that the commission would evaluate. (See ACT, January/February 2002.) In addition, the NPR called for periodic assessments by officials from the Departments of Defense and Energy and the military, the first of which will begin this year. In light of the broad range of research and development programs in the coming decade that the NPR initiated, DOD wrote, “A new review of Nuclear Strategy would therefore be both disruptive and redundant.”

The Pentagon’s opposition caught Weldon off guard, as shown by an August 14 letter he wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Noting that he first learned of DOD’s disagreement with the proposed commission through press reports, Weldon criticized the department’s “lack of professional courtesy” in failing to inform him directly. He stressed that DOD’s reasoning does not take into account “Congress’ constitutional obligation to oversee the Department of Defense—a function completely separate and distinct from the Pentagon’s NPR.” Weldon also noted that more than 20 experts—including John S. Foster, who heads a commission on stockpile safety and reliability, and James Woolsey, former director of central intelligence and a participant in Rumsfeld’s 1998 commission to assess the ballistic missile threat—support the creation of a Nuclear Strategy Commission.

Weldon pointed out that DOD seems to have forgotten his efforts to support the Pentagon in previous legislative battles. He stated that, after the department “turn[ed] its back on my efforts and publicly oppose[d] my legislation without so much as the courtesy of a phone call,” he will be “hard pressed to continue to fight the Department’s battles on these issues in Congress in the future.”

His confrontation with the Pentagon might be short-lived, however. One congressional source said the conference committee faces many tough questions when it reconvenes its talks in September. According to the staffer, the Nuclear Strategy Commission is further down the list of committee priorities and lacks significant support from other members of Congress.

This dispute is not Weldon’s first confrontation with administration officials over nuclear policy. Weldon inserted himself in the middle of the crisis over North Korea’s development of its nuclear weapons capability, heading a bipartisan congressional delegation to visit the country in May and drawing up a 10-point plan of action to halt North Korea’s burgeoning production capability and bring the country into compliance with international nuclear arms control norms. (See ACT, July/August 2003.) Weldon also joined Representative John Spratt Jr. (D-SC) and other members of Congress in critiquing what they considered inadequate efforts by the Bush administration to secure and dispose of nuclear weapons and related materials in Russia, as well as calling for expanded measures to accelerate dismantlement of Russia’s weapons of mass destruction stockpiles.